Children wearing Superman and Mickey Mouse face masks often play in the woods around Congregation B’nai Tzedek. What once might have been part of a Purim costume is a standard accessory for the pandemic.
This fall, the Potomac-based Conservative congregation’s Greenzaid Early Childhood Center is meeting in person, after going virtual last spring, said Director Jane Greenblatt.
“We found that after the first couple of weeks, it was really difficult to engage children,” Greenblatt said of virtual learning. “Children learn through play and being with peers. So as long as they’re here with each other, problem solving and working on emotional and behavioral growth, using motor skills, all of those things that happen here, I think that’s the key.”
Laura Cohen’s 4-year-old son is one of 31 children ages 15 months to 5 years enrolled in the preschool. She said she initially hesitated about sending him to an in-person class. She concluded that the school was taking precautions to minimize the risk of COVID.
“The reality is that we’re all reassessing, reevaluating the right move for families on a daily basis as information is coming in,” said Cohen, of North Potomac. “So while there’s no guarantees in the world around us right now at all, we do feel confident that [Greenzaid ECC is] doing absolutely everything in their power to provide our children with a safe learning environment.”
The center has three classes divided up by age. Classes are not allowed to interact with one another in order to isolate each cohort. Each group even uses a different door to enter the building. And only one group plays on the playground at a time.
Only the staff and children are allowed inside the building. Before entering, everyone is screened with health questions and undergo a temperature check. The daily routine includes more hand washing and hand sanitizing stations have been set up throughout the building.
The staff is required to wear masks; face shields are optional. Kids are also required to wear masks, but there’s an exception for those who are too young to properly wear one. Greenblatt said she initially thought it would be difficult to get young children to wear masks all day. Staff have made an effort to normalize the practice by putting masks on dolls and reminding kids how cool it is to wear one.
“Surprisingly, young children really don’t have much of a problem wearing a mask,” Greenblatt said. “At first it felt strange, but it’s become more normal. For a 2 or 3-year-old, six months is a big percentage of their life. So they’re used to seeing masks. It’s only as uncomfortable as the adults make it feel.”
Cohen said her son wasn’t happy about wearing a mask at first. Now it’s just as normal as wearing shirts or shoes.
“Once I showed him all the prints and color options, trucks and animals and all the different masks to choose from,” he hasn’t complained, Cohen said.
What has been a struggle, Greenblatt said, is maintaining social distance among the kids. The school has added tables and chairs, and mats and tape to mark spaces. But it’s hard to keep children apart when they want to play together.
“We don’t want to discourage moments of joy and reaching out to each other because that’s what young children do,” Greenblatt said. “So we gently steer them away from that, from holding hands and things like that.”
While many of these measures will only last for as long as the pandemic does, Greenblatt foresees some long-term changes as a result of COVID.
“I think that there will be a shift in sort of our general outlook on things, like washing hands and keeping a distance and keeping children home when they’re not feeling well. I think those kinds of changes will happen,” Greenblatt said. “And some of them will be for the better.”